Back in the 1960s, legal aid in criminal cases was in the hands of stipendiary magistrates, in the case of lay magistrates, the clerks of the court. The stipes in particular regarded themselves as guardians of the public purse.
In the lay courts, it was not that difficult to get legal aid for a client in a halfway serious case. The defendant on the first hearing went in the witness box, possibly told a few lies about his income, and you were up and running. With the stipes it was a very different matter. Marlborough Street had a strict rule that legal aid was not given for shoplifting cases. Full stop. If I remember correctly the penalty was almost always a fixed one as well. That is, £25 – or just over a week of my wages when I first qualified – for a first offence. For the second, 14 days’ imprisonment.
Toby Springer, who sat at Highbury, was a man from whom it was difficult to obtain a certificate, even in a contested case. Then if he convicted the defendant and remanded him for three weeks for reports, there would still be no legal aid for the sentencing. The three weeks in custody was a wake-up call: he had no intention of sending the man to prison. Therefore, no need for legal aid, was there? So, although we did not know its name, we all did a good deal of pro bono work in those days.
Nor, quite often, was legal aid available for committal proceedings. ‘I’ll consider it again if I commit,’ even if the case was a really serious one, was the attitude. I remember reading a report of the case of a woman who had thrown acid in a man’s face – possibly he was a policeman. ‘No need for legal aid. I’ll look after her,’ the stipe was reported as saying.
Sometimes they were right. Once I did get a certificate for a committal and, running late, the very fearsome stipe said he would take my case after lunch. When I returned the building was in darkness and I went off to find out what had happened. ‘Oh,’ smirked the court officer, ‘he’s gone home. He heard all the evidence, committed your client, gave him bail against police objections and extended your legal aid. Couldn’t have done better if you’d been there, could you?’
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor